By Todd Wilkinson
Beneath a band of soft cerulean sky in the Sonoran Desert, Bob Kuhn emerges from his house into bright sunlight. The 86-year-old painter, destined to rank in perpetuity as one of the most talented ever to render an animal landscape, strides forth unsquintingly, his chin beard burning white.
Kuhn’s residence, which he shares with Libby, his wife of 65 years, occupies a slant of foothill that rises over Tucson, AZ, like an escalator into the Santa Catalina Mountains. It is camouflaged in a neighborhood noted for Spanish hacienda architecture and artists in search of seclusion, landscaped in native grasses, blooming cholla, bottlebrush, and barrel cacti. The setting isn’t far from the city’s western art galleries, nor is it a long walk to reach the wash of Sabino Canyon, a favorite painting spot of Kuhn’s and an arroyo where urban hikers have had recent tussles with wild pumas.
In person, Kuhn projects the presence that was once ascribed to Hemingway. From daily swims in the backyard pool amid sweltering heat to keeping up regular tennis dates, casting a dryfly, and enjoying a regular glass of wine, Kuhn appears remarkably vigorous. Sitting on an easel stool, he dabs his horsehair onto the surface of a new fox painting, its background spare, abstract, minimalist, tonal, and, as any honest critic would assert, resolutely contemporary. Beside it dries a larger painting of brown bears—the bruins’ gestures and movements articulated in remarkably few wisps of textured acrylic.
More than 35 years ago, Kuhn, at age 50, gave up his celebrated career as a commercial illustrator in favor of painting animals full time. He and Libby eventually moved west permanently from Connecticut. Recognition kept following: A major retrospective of his wildlife art was held this summer at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, OK. Kuhn also recently received a distinguished alumnus award from his alma mater, the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, placing him in the same noted company as minimalist Ellsworth Kelly, cubist Max Weber, and the late provocative photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
Filling his studio wall today are visual mile markers charting his course, which predates World War II. There’s the original sketch that artist Paul Bransom gave to him when Kuhn was still a teen in the 1930s—a piece that marked the start of mentorship in the classical drawing and painting methods. Next to it are pictures of works by Sir Alfred Munnings, Bruno Liljefors, Carl Rungius, Winslow Homer, and Conrad Schwiering. File cabinets brim with sketches and photos harvested from the African bush. And pressed open on his desk is an art book featuring paintings by abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, which helps to explain why Kuhn is a modern painter of wildlife unlike any other today.
“I always tell young people that if a wildlife artist only examines the work of other wildlife artists, he is going to attain a narrow view of what he should be considering,” Kuhn says. “I have always had an emotional response to color. Rothko was a genius in expressing color through design and shape.”
When Kuhn is asked what stirs his soul, he muses, “I sometimes think of myself as singing ballads about these animals. I’m not here to give you the dull facts.” He embraces portrayals that are representational, but not literal. “I’m trying to tell you why I love them,” he explains.
Kuhn’s neighbor, the noted western figurative painter Howard Terpning, says it’s an apt analogy to think of Kuhn as an improvisational virtuoso–a combination of Louis Armstrong, the Irish Tenors, and the string section in a Puccini opera. Terpning considers Kuhn the consummate working artist who has carved his own glacial path down the terrain that is known as “wildlife art,” yet as the Pratt award demonstrates, he is regarded among informed critics as far more than an animal painter.
Some of Kuhn’s best pieces, Terpning says, have been created in his 70s and 80s. But just two years ago, when Kuhn was rushed to the operating table for emergency open-heart surgery—the second and most harrowing such episode of his life—it was a miracle that he survived. “Had he not pulled through,” says Terpning, “had he not been so tough, all of the remarkable work he’s produced since then wouldn’t be in existence. What a blessing it is for him to still be here. What a gift it is for us to have a second chance to appreciate an artist like him in our midst. Everyone better damn well enjoy the great ones while we have them. No one lasts forever.”
While Kuhn appreciates such sentiments expressed by close amigos like Terpning (both are part of a distinguished group of older artists called the Tucson 7, which also includes Harley Brown, Duane Bryers, Don Crowley, Tom Hill, and Ken Riley), he has never given much thought to voluntarily slowing down, with or without a pacemaker–not since his youth in Buffalo, NY, and not now either.
Kuhn’s career has taken him from painting the covers of major sporting magazines and earning kudos from the illustrators of the day, to landing a coveted and career-transforming commission to paint the famed Remington Arms calendar, to works purchased for museum collections and sold at auction for prices well into six figures. But he has never let go of Bransom’s early advice: Whether at the zoo or in the tall grass of the veld, behold the animal, Bransom implored. Study it, memorize it, try to think as it thinks, feel its life force and spirit. Like an eternal truth handed down from father to son, Bransom told Kuhn to look upon his wildlife subjects, or anything else he holds dear, with the same urgent sense of love one would have if this were the last moment he would see them on earth.
“The difference between him and other wildlife artists is that his animals are always alive, even when they’re presented as sedentary poses,” says Stuart Johnson, owner of Settler’s West Galleries in Tucson and a longtime friend. “There’s always a hint of the next step in the story.”
In 2002, the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, WY, which holds the largest collection of Kuhn’s work in the world, amassed a mother lode of Kuhn’s most astonishing paintings. In the catalog for that exhibition, Kuhn commented, “I thought it just so happens that my life-span coincides with the last splurge of large mammals in the world. And I appointed myself as spokesman, a balladeer to say something about those big animals—so I did. So I did it and am doing.”
For the viewer, there are two things that Kuhn’s corpus hammers home: First, he is a master stylist, his work instantly recognizable like Homer’s or Rothko’s. Second, he is adept at distilling a figure down to its simplest gesture. You can see this especially in Kuhn’s sketches, exquisite little treasures unto themselves. Long ago, Kuhn could have stopped drawing. He could have reckoned that he had observed enough. In doing so, no one would have found fault or begrudged his subsequent work. But still he sketches as part of his daily exercise, because he was taught there is never an end in the quest for truth in form. Drawing is the prerequisite he imposes upon himself for picking up a brush.
“Bob can suggest more in a line drawing or smudge of paint because he is so in command of his medium,” suggests Fred King, who founded Sportsman’s Edge Gallery in New York City and began representing Kuhn more than three decades ago. As for those largely urban critics of “wildlife art” who demean it as prosaic, King says they base their own rigid dismissiveness on subject matter. But to do so, he notes, is rather like calling Van Gogh a flower painter, Michelangelo an urban muralist, or Carlos Santana a Latino with a few resonant electric-guitar licks. Kuhn, says King, paints wildlife by choice because the animal is his fulcrum for exploring light, movement, and design.
Some artists find their form in youth and spend the rest of their lives trying to hold onto it. Kuhn only began hitting his stride at the half-century mark. Finding liberating joy in color and lacing it with wit, Kuhn’s lyrical essence is evident in the careful selection of titles he assigns to paintings. With COME CLOSER WHO DARES, he borrows from A.A. Milne’s story of Winnie the Pooh in which the prose reads: “Whisper who dares! Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.” Kuhn’s reworked the passage to pertain to a bull elk bugling in the autumn rut, defending his harem against unseen intruders.
To savor the troubadour Kuhn has become, perhaps Milne once again supplies the perfect words: “Never forget me, because if I thought you would, I’d never leave.” Fortunately, the world will always have Kuhn’s art. Behold it now, remember it well, feel the life presence as if you are seeing him and his animals for the last time.
Featured in October 2006